Iraqi Forces Taking Steps to Lead, But U.S. Aid Still Needed

The Iraqi battalion leader huddled over the map with his American advisers, showing them how he planned to surround a Sunni enclave where Al Qaeda militants were believed hiding.

The Americans nodded in approval and assured Col. Faisal Malik Mohsen the roads would be cleared of bombs. U.S. attack helicopters would provide cover to keep insurgents from escaping.

The raid last week northeast of Baghdad did not find many weapons or flush out scores of hidden fighters. But it accomplished a wider objective: taking another step toward putting Iraqi security forces in control of ground operations.

Such transitions to Iraqi command — occurring at different speeds around the country — have taken on added importance as Washington and Baghdad negotiate a pact that could have the last U.S. soldiers leaving by the end of 2011.

But they also expose the many weaknesses of the Iraqi forces that still rely on American help for everything from air support to bottled water in the field.

U.S. troops even were forced to step in and provide fuel when the National Police did not receive government allotments for about two weeks in July, leaving many units near empty.

Before the Aug. 21 raid, informants had warned that militants would likely stand and fight. The informants were wrong. Instead of bullets, the police commandos were greeted with smiles and glasses of water as they searched houses.

Two men were detained without incident and several assault rifles were seized.

Mohsen, the 42-year-old commander from the southern Shiite city of Nasiriyah, and his U.S. advisers backers acknowledged their intelligence had been faulty. The militants probably fled ahead of the operation. Still they proclaimed the raid a success because one more Al Qaeda safe haven was gone.

The National Police — a 40,000-strong paramilitary force that is one of the three main pillars of the Iraqi security apparatus — have faced roadside bombs and booby-trapped houses since arriving in Diyala province late last month in the latest government effort to rout insurgents there. Five commandos have been killed and eight wounded.

U.S. officials maintain the force is improving — a necessary step before the Americans can go home. But the Iraqis are still lacking in logistical and explosives expertise as well as medical capabilities.

"When people ask what the exit strategy is, this is it," said Col. Thearon Williams, 45, of Detroit, commander of the U.S. advisory team for the National Police. "It's small groups of Americans living among the Iraqis and training them."

The Iraqi security forces have enjoyed increased public confidence after a series of government offensives against Sunni and Shiite extremists that began in March in the southern city of Basra.

But U.S. forces were needed as backup in every situation and it took a Shiite militia cease-fire and Iranian intervention to stop the fierce fighting that broke out in Basra.

Anthony Cordesman of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies warns against exaggerating the Iraqi troops' progress, citing serious ethnic and sectarian tensions and a shortage of experienced officers.

"Both Iraqi and U.S. politicians now seem to take such reporting too seriously and be unaware of how much still needs to be done," he said in a recent analysis.

The Aug. 21 operation showed the interplay between the Iraqis and the Americans trying to get Iraq's forces into shape.

Before the raid, Mohsen's American advisers told him to weigh the timing carefully. His Iraqi commanding general called him to a special meeting on the eve of the raid to make sure he was ready.

Mohsen, who is scheduled for leadership training in the United States later this year, was eager for the fight. Nevertheless, he acknowledges that his unit isn't ready to operate alone.

"We need the Americans," he said. "We need time. We cannot build a whole country in a few years. We complement each other."

With the raid set to go, the national policemen in their trademark blue camouflage uniforms rolled out before dawn in blue-and-white pickups reinforced with metal sheeting and piled high with thin mattresses and plastic chairs that served as seats for the gunners.

To ensure surprise, Mohsen led a group on foot through a palm grove, while the convoy waited down the road for the go-ahead to approach the isolated Sunni hamlet of Harbatiliyah, 15 miles northeast of Baqouba. U.S. helicopters buzzed overhead.

"Everybody knows this area used to be a bunker for Al Qaeda in Iraq," Mohsen said. "But they know they can't fight us."

Sgt. Razzaq Latif al-Osmi, a 21-year-old newlywed from Nasiriyah, and other squadron leaders ordered their men into formation and began searching the collection of mud thatch compounds, including many houses abandoned last year after most Shiite residents were scared away.

The troops knocked politely on the gates — often welcomed by men holding out their IDs ready to be checked — then carefully picked through piles of thin mattresses, clothing and bags.

Sheiks and young men wearing yellow bands showing they're members of a U.S.-allied Sunni group came forth to greet the police.

At one point, al-Osmi questioned a teenage boy about Saddam Hussein-era uniforms found in a closet, then patted him on the shoulder and assured him the search was for his own security.

The young squadron commander, with sweat dripping off his face as temperatures pushed to 120 degrees, said he didn't really expect to find any weapons.

"But it's important to send a message to the insurgents," he said.